Specialized skills and knowledge sharing are hallmarks of emerging local 'maker movement'

Jen Guarino is the vice president of leather at Shinola, a company that is growing thanks to the popularity of its high-end lifestyle products that are manufactured in Detroit. She heads a department that employs 60 people who, as she sees it, are not simply assembly line workers.

"I consider our employees makers," Guarino says. "For me, a maker is someone that creates something of tangible value through the application of skill by combining materials, craft, and science. It's not purely artistic. It's not purely science."
In addition to the watches for which it is best known, Shinola produces a variety of leather products like wallets, backpacks, and bracelets. It also makes straps for its watches using a precise 30-step process. One error can disrupt the entire procedure, so highly skilled workers -- ones who receive competitive salaries and benefits -- are needed to ensure consistency and quality in end products.
While the ability to make a living is important to all makers, some locals see their skills as much as tools for community development as they are for personal gain.
Clement Brown, Jr. is the founder of FAME Shop, which stands for fashion, arts, music, and entertainment. When he was 14, a friend taught Brown how to airbrush designs onto t-shirts. Classmates and neighbors took notice and asked if he could make them custom shirts. A precocious entrepreneur, Brown recognized a business opportunity. With only a few people mentoring him or teaching him along the way, he learned how to screen print, sew, and market clothing.
At first, Brown saw making clothes only as an opportunity to earn money. He has since realized the possibilities of creating to build self-identity. "Children in my community, and I was one of them, identify with the wrong things," says Brown. "In conditions of poverty, it's easy to get in the trap of tying your self-value to material things."
Every year, Brown throws a back-to-school party, "Joy Day," so named because it takes place near the FAME Shop on Joy Road. There's food, a bounce house, and other activities for kids. Brown also puts out an open call for anyone interested in touring his workshops and learning clothes-making skills.
"I take pride in teaching kids this lesson: they are their most important brand," says Brown. "I show them how clothes are produced to dispel the greatness associated with jeans or shoes. We buy our own fabric and make our own stuff. And they get the point: it's just fabric and they can do this themselves. They make the brand, the brand doesn't make them."
Making makers

The work of a maker, and many of the jobs in today's manufacturing setting, requires expertise. This has resulted in what economists call the "skills gap."
Guarino cited a recent study that claims roughly 80 percent of manufacturing jobs in the United States go unfilled because of a talent shortage. But she argues that it's not just a talent shortage that's manufacturing's problem, but rather a failure to invest in talent. In short, America has a value gap, not a skills gap.
"It's a subconscious thing that we've taken away the dignity of being a trade worker," she says.
Guarino acknowledged the need for training, but asserts that more important should be how we invest in workers by valuing their skills. "Teach [a skill] or lose it fast. Value it or lose it faster," she says.
Shinola is working to address both these issues. The company's watch factory is located on the 4th floor of the A. Alfred Taubman Center for Design Education. After Shinola opened its factory, a natural collaboration developed between the watchmaker and the design school. Shinola sponsors classes, offers an internship program for CCS students, leads design workshops, and helped create the Fashion Accessories Design program, which educates students "in the design and manufacture of shoes, handbags, soft leather goods, and accessories hardware," according to CCS's website.
Someday, these graduates may end up working at Shinola, just a few floors up.
Makers gather to discuss their work
To address some of the questions and issues surrounding the re-emergence of a maker movement in Michigan, Model D partnered with The Henry Ford to host MakerLab, which was held May 7 at Trinosophes in Detroit's Eastern Market. The event featured individual presentations and a panel discussion by local makers Stacy Burdette of Hacker Gals, Ralph Taylor of Caribbean Mardi Gras Productions, as well as Guarino and Brown. Karla Henderson, executive director at Ponyride, moderated the discussion.
When asked to define 'makerspace,' the panelists' responses varied, though elements of education and knowledge sharing were common to all definitions.
"It's a place that's meant to engage people in collaborative learning environments," said Burdette, who's Kalamazoo-based nonprofit seeks to empower women through regular meetups and open houses.
Taylor, who makes elaborate costumes and sculptures for parades and festivals, works a lot with children. "All us makers need to give back," he said. "During summer time I open my doors and encourage kids to come in and learn. I get so much love out of that."
Guarino believes education goes in the other direction as well, by getting society and employers to recognize the value of makers. "Our workers are an asset, not just a labor cost, and you need to take care of your assets," said Guarino.
Shinola's commitment to worker welfare is reflected in its work environment -- the factory is a pleasant place to walk around. There's ample natural light, no intrusive smells or sounds, and, because watchmaking is such a sensitive process, it's very clean and sanitary. Also, the office's floor plan is uniquely integrated. "We're not separate here," said Guarino. "Our assemblers are right next to our accountants. There's no reason why their environment shouldn't be as nice as everyone else's. If we want to attract new people to this industry, we have to treat them right."
"We have to support makers," said Taylor, echoing Guarino's sentiments. "They should feel good about themselves regardless of what they're doing."

Support for Model D MakerLab was provided by the Henry Ford. Learn more about Maker Faire Detroit and the call to makers here. Explore "Inspiring stories from The Henry Ford's Innovation Nation" video series here.

Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.

All images by Doug Coombe.

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Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.